Study: Pollen Tells Us What Killed Bronze Age Civilizations


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The New York Times reported that a recent study of pollen may explain the sudden collapse of what were, at the time, highly successful civilizations like the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Hittites.

3200 years in the distant past, Tel Aviv was a major trading center in Israel, Ramses II ruled over a vast Egyptian empire, and many other cultures from Mycenaean Greece to Canaan engaged in trade and commerce along the Mediterranean Sea. 150 years later, every empire would be either dead or a mere fragment of their former glory.

What caused this sudden collapse, until now, was the subject of much historical debate. A variety of theories cast blame on bloody warfare, unpredictable earthquakes, or perhaps one of a variety of plagues.

But today, a study conducted in Tel Aviv and Bonn, Germany on fossilized pollen and published in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University is suggesting that between the years of 1250 and 1100 B.C.E., a terrible drought took place that wiped out several civilizations.

The new theory is due, in no small part, to massive advances in climate science that permitted the researchers to make such a precise conclusion. Similar studies that examine long-term processes like pollen buildup often require analysis of strata roughly 500 years apart, but this particular study analyzed strata at 40-year intervals as opposed to 500, which Professor Israel Finkelstein of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv says is the most precise resolution of study yet performed in the region.

Finkelstein and another professor, Steve Weiner from Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, had previously received a grant from the European Research Council to attempt a reconstruction of ancient Israel.

A Tel Aviv University pollen researcher, Dafna Langgut, was brought in alongside Professor Thomas Litt of the Institute of Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn in Germany to conduct the climate-side of the research. The entire project was initiated in 2010, and has taken the full three years to complete.

The research team had to extract nearly 60 feet of soil core samples from the Sea of Galilee, going deep enough to reach sediments from the last 9,000 years. They performed the same extraction in the Dead Sea.

Their final conclusion: the Mediterranean area suffered a sharp decrease in trees like oaks, pines, carobs, and olive trees. Since olive trees were essential for local cultivation, the experts believe repeated droughts were required to achieve this result. The consequences would have been apocalyptic, particularly for city-states like Megiddo.

In the historical record, the first hint of the problems to come was a letter from a Hittite queen to Ramses II circa-1250 B.C.E., which read, "I have no grain in my lands."

"Understanding climate is key to understanding history," Finkelstein added. "The authors of the Bible knew very well the value of precipitation and the calamity that may be inflicted on people by drought."

Read the full Times piece here.

[Image via a YouTube lecture on the Bronze Age]